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FRISCO, Texas — The navy T-shirt hanging in the cabinet of Demarcus Lawrence’s locker at the Star has three lines of bold text across the front.
“THE BALL. THE BALL. THE BALL,” it reads, in crisp white block letters that contrast the navy fabric.
Three more letters are ironed onto the edge of the left sleeve, as personalized initials might be. But these three letters — IDM — are consistent across the shirt hanging in Lawrence’s locker, the one linebacker Jaylon Smith donned post-practice Wednesday and their teammates’ gear.
The message of the acronym: It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter to the Dallas Cowboys defense whether they’re facing the winless Miami Dolphins or the weapon-rich New Orleans Saints offense. It doesn’t matter to Lawrence and his teammates whether they’re facing Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees or Saints backup Teddy Bridgewater, who readies for his second start Sunday as Brees rehabs a surgically repaired thumb into at least October.
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The Saints are the latest in a list of “faceless, nameless opponents,” Lawrence said Wednesday. “Just the effort, the mentality. We have to focus on our standards, not nobody else’s.”
That doesn’t mean Lawrence and Co. aren’t studying Bridgewater and his surrounding cast intently. Yes, they note, Bridgewater seems more mobile than Brees. Brees stayed set, but always, they felt, knew his reads impeccably. Brees has started more than 200 games with the organization. So naturally, the offensive line will be more familiar with his sets than those of Bridgewater. The Cowboys pass rush will aim to exploit any growing pains.
“Bridgewater, he’s shown he’s a very capable passer,” Cowboys end Robert Quinn said. “Now, of course, Drew Brees? Those are two different names. … He’s a little more mobile, but as a front four, we can’t allow that to slow us down.
“As we say, four equals one. We’re all on the same page. And if he may get off his spot, we know where he’s going already.”
Through three games, by some metrics, Cowboys pass rushers have thrived. Dallas has won 59% of pass rushes, second-best in the league, per ESPN, which measures the mark based on how often pass rushers beat a block within 2.5 seconds. Dallas’ defense has also limited scoring opportunities, with its opponents’ 14.7 points per game the fourth-best mark in the NFL.
But they’ve allowed offenses far more production than they say is their standard. The unit that ranked seventh in yards allowed in 2018 has fallen to 15th through three weeks. Less-effective pressure on the quarterback is a factor.
Which is why Lawrence is grateful for the addition of Quinn, who returned from suspension in Week 3 to record five quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
“The only thing that can evaporate daylight is speed,” Lawrence said. “Being able to have more speed on the opposing side is great for me. Now I can make any move I want to.”
Lawrence will still plan those moves carefully this week, anticipating three moves to deploy against a Saints front that’s allowed just eight quarterback hits, tied with the Cowboys for fewest in the league. Lawrence is practicing drills against three blue-padded linemen at once to become accustomed to triple teams, a challenge he doesn’t “feel like I’ve mastered yet,” he says, “but I’m a ninja assassin, so I’ll get it.” Per ESPN, Lawrence has been double-teamed on 35% of plays, more than any edge rusher in the league. But he’s optimistic that teams won’t be able to double-team as frequently with Quinn’s threat installed.
Enter Lawrence’s three pass-rush moves of the week — he says some are variations, or counters, off the same set — to attack New Orleans. His goal: Hammer a speed move so effectively that offensive linemen will begin to expect a move and fail to react quickly enough when he counters.
“I need you to kick in 1-2-3,” Lawrence broke it down. “Now you’re like, ‘OK, I know where he’s going to be at.’ … Now I tighten up on you (and) you got to stop your feet. You stop your feet, you can’t block until you put your hands on somebody. Ta-da, I win.”
It’s a palate of skills the Saints know is formidable.
“Boy, he’s disruptive in so many ways,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a guy I’d say is complete as a defensive end — his get-off, his instincts, he’s got really good hips and really good athleticism. He can edge you and create penetration and problem.
“He’s one of those elite defensive ends and you’ve got to account for him.”
Accounting for Lawrence won’t faze him. He knows it comes with the territory after he notched 25 sacks through 2017-18 and earned a $105 million extension in April. Lawrence doesn’t shy away from the challenge that he’ll face from a stout Saints offensive line, a mobile quarterback, two Cowboys defensive-line starters out injured, Superdome crowd noise or the Sunday Night Football spotlight.
Lawrence is ready, he says, to block all those distractions out and instead focus on the three letters printed on his left sleeve that remind him to deliver on the task at hand.
IDM. It doesn’t matter.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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